Horseshoes & Hand Grenades made a big mark on Madison's concert calendar in 2013, gigging with local bands as well as national acts like the Infamous Stringdusters and Pert' Near Sandstone. Every show, it seems, is a celebration. They'll headline the Majestic Theatre's Wisconsin Bluegrass Festival (Saturday, Jan. 11) then bring down the Stoughton Opera House with Charlie Parr (Saturday, March 15).
Pulsing with banjos, accordions and fiddles, Horseshoes' bluegrass sound is great at creating a party atmosphere. After all, merrymaking is in the group's DNA. After meeting at college house parties in 2009, the five musicians quickly realized they had chemistry as a band.
Onstage, they seem more spontaneous than ever at wintertime shows. Perhaps it's because they got their start in chilly Stevens Point, about 100 miles north of Madison.
Adam Greuel, the band's guitarist, didn't dig into his musical interests until he decided against a football career. Though he made the squad at UW-Stevens Point, he soon discovered he wasn't cut out for the sport. There were too many injuries, and he just didn't like playing the game as much as he loved playing music. During this period of soul searching, he befriended bassist Sam Odin, who introduced him to Horseshoes' other musicians, David C. Lynch, Russell Pedersen and Collin Mettelka. These three had their own bluegrass act at the time, and Greuel became a huge fan. Pretty soon, all five guys were hanging out regularly.
One of the first times they got together, they didn't just talk about music. They started playing it right away.
"There were a bunch of musical instruments around," Greuel recalls. "I remember picking up a guitar and starting to pick and sing a little bit. Next thing I know, there's this guy playing banjo next to me and singing really damn good. That was Russell. That night, all five of us ended up hanging out and picking and drinking. It was a big ol' party scene."
That scene soon birthed a band focused on creating a community of musicians and music lovers.
"I think it's an important piece of us as a band, the fact that we create a community," Greuel says. "We play more for the party, for the vibe. That's always on our mind."
Some of the band's members still attend college in Stevens Point, and that town's music scene has been a great place to gain experience and build a tight-knit group of supporters.
"Folks of all age groups seem to come out of the woodwork for live music," Greuel says of Stevens Point.
The national bluegrass scene is burgeoning, with lots of opportunities for young bands to move through the ranks. Within a short period of time, Horseshoes have landed dozens of gigs -- and numerous fans -- in the Madison, Minneapolis and Chicago areas.
In addition to connecting with fans across the Midwest, Greuel likes connecting with other emerging bluegrass performers. One of his favorite events is a weekly jam at the Northland Ballroom in tiny Iola, Wis. He says it's hard not to perform once you see how much fun it is.
"[When] musicians go, they're like, 'I wonder if I can pick up that banjo,'" he says.
But Horseshoes' music isn't just about banjo pickin'. While they draw on bluegrass and old-time music, they also add jazz influences.
"We incorporate things we've listened to over time, as individuals and collectively," Greuel says. "Sam, for instance, is really into jazz. He has taken up the idea of playing a more jazz-styled bluegrass bass or old-time bass."
In 2013, Horseshoes released their second studio LP, This Old Town. They put together the album with Mark Richardson, a Wisconsin-based producer and engineer who has worked with stars like Fountains of Wayne and Regina Spektor. Filled with energy and meaningful lyrics, it's their most dynamic release yet.
The impact of the lyrics is especially important to Greuel.
"You make metaphors out of what you know. I use songwriting as a release, a way to come to terms with something," he says.
But lyrics are also important in building the type of supportive community the band seeks.
"People come up to me and say, 'Hey man, this really got me through a tough time.' That's special to hear because it got me through a tough time, too," he says.